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Pub Talk: CSL 2014 is here at last!

The wait is over folks! The CSL 2014 season kicks off this weekend, so there should be only one thing on the agenda with the boys in the pub. However, the Chinese national team falling “ass backwards” over the Asian Cup qualification finishing line yet still making it can’t be ignored unfortunately. Your correspondents give their views on that and the dog’s dinner new coach Perrin must deal with. It’s really all about looking forward to the CSL though, the drinking pair go through all this weekend’s games and share their hopes for the season. Pessimistic or optimistic? You decide, and please join in the discussion in the comments section if you don’t want Bcheng and Ultra to hog the conch.

B: I know we always seem to have a lot to talk about, but today we almost have too much to talk about. The CSL is kicking off allowing everyone a glimmer of hope for at least a few weeks, the national team is in next year’s Asian Cup despite yet another disgrace, and we can always talk about Shenhua’s hilariously bad new logo…

S: Yes, I’ll have a plate of garlic broccoli please with my beer in honour of Shenhua’s badge. But let’s get last night’s fiasco out of the way first shall we? Your verdict please B.

B: I was extra hard on Feng Xiaoting and Gao Lin (who became invisible) last night, but outside of Yang Zhi, who had a great game, and Yu Hanchao, who wasn’t awful, nobody in the starting XI should not face scorn. Thankfully whoever was in charge figured that out around the hour mark and brought on China’s three best players.

S: I think apart from Yang Zhi and the subs who came on, it was a dreadful performance all round, not much point in pointing at individuals. Nothing has changed, nothing at all.

B: It seems like they’re sliding backwards. I don’t get it, because if Fu Bo was in charge, why did he not go with the lineup of youngsters that he was using and that worked for him. If Perrin was in charge, well, that’s a problem in itself…

S: To me Fu had looked to have made some progress by injecting fresh flood into the side. The East Asian cup a case in point. But Wu Lei and Zhang Xizhe were on the bench. Only Yu Daobao do I think is not worse than that pair. I feel China just play the same game each time. One guy up front, totally toothless attack, disorganized and sloppy at the back, careless passing and stupidly losing possession in midfield. These things are in large part down to the coach, I don’t believe China don’t have the talent to beat Iraq.

B: The problem was the lack of creative players, if you’re going to play with a lone striker you need someone who can open space for him and when you’re relying on the likes of Wang Yongpo, Huang Bowen, and Zheng Zhi to do that, it’s going to be a long night.

S: Wang Yongpo needs to step up his game for China. Then again he’s just one of many players who are great for their clubs but don’t cut it at national level. Overall though, China can consider themselves extremely fortunate to be going to Australia. The penalty was from a total dive, and had Thailand not clawed one back against Lebanon we’d be looking at China’s biggest footballing disaster ever, and that is saying something.

B: There was contact, so it was better than Wu Lei’s earlier dive, but there was no reason for the player to go down.

S: It was a dive, plain and simple.

B: Alright…I just have to hope that Perrin realizes its time to overhaul the side and gets them ready for Australia. We saw that China has decent talent, there are reasons to be hopeful about Australia, but it’s not going to be easy.

S: Right now I can’t think of many sadly. I’ve always tried to be optimistic about the Chinese national team, but everything that has happened recently just proves nothing has changed. So I don’t really know what to say other than, I hope Perrin can bring positive change, but I am not familiar with him, I thought Lippi was going to be the man, he has the stature to sort out the mentality and approach of the players, whether Perrin can, who knows. I had never heard of him until last week.

B: The reasons are the three that came on during the second half last night and Zhang Linpeng. Add in Yu Dabao and Yu Hanchao. Plus, China’s goalkeeping. The thing is nobody should be an “automatic”, and players like Gao Lin, Zheng Zhi, Du Wei, etc need to be replaced quick fast.

S: Yeah I would agree with that.

B: Perrin isn’t the joke that Camacho is and while he may not be a big name, that doesn’t mean he won’t be a good manager for China. I’m willing to give him some time. It was unbelievably unfair of the CFA to bring him in just days before this match.

S: I think its utter stupidity to bring him in when they did. It would have been better to let Fu finish the job. I do also think Perrin deserves a shot and he doesn’t need to be a big name. But at this point he will end up just like Camacho if results don’t improve considerably.

B: Enough of that pain, let’s focus on something that we can be optimistic about, the season kicks off this weekend.

S: Yeah. I’m excited about the start of the season, the winter is always long and a little boring in China. I think this year in general we can expect a more exciting season than last year, hopefully.

B: How bout we look at each of the matches this weekend and give some thoughts about the sides.

S: Yeah I think Sainty v Guizhou looks one of the more interesting ties. Sainty are something of an unknown quantity, they were great in 2012, but very poor last year. Will the real Sainty please stand up? Guizhou I think are a team who may have lost their momentum from recent reasons.

B: I think this is going to be a very interesting clash. These sides are very similar to me in that neither have a shot in hell at contending for the title, but both are a step above all the non-title contending sides in the CSL.

S: Both of them I could see making it to the ACL. Shandong v Harbin is also interesting, I have a sneaking season all may not go well for Shandong this season in general. As for Harbin, they almost look as if they didn’t expect to get promoted.

B: Right, for all their talk about spending, Harbin put nothing in the team and seem happy to take a piece of the new CSL money pie, then go back down to the lower division. For Shandong, we only have their first ACL match to go by and that was a disaster. Cuca had no clue how to use his players and they were completely disorganized. Shandong have a shit ton of talent, but I don’t have confidence in Cuca’s using it properly. Yet no matter what, Shandong is clearly better than 13 of the CSL sides and so should finish in the top three. They get an easy start and this should be a rude awakening for Harbin in the CSL.

S: Yeah I can’t see anything other than a solid win for Shandong despite my reservations about them. Evergrande are taking on Henan, that looks one-sided also. Both the CSL newcomers given as tough a start as possible it seems. How very unfair!

B: Very unfair indeed. Not really a surprise that virtually everyone is picking Evergrande to win the title this year and while Henan is likely to get crushed in this match, I really believe they’ll do okay in the CSL this season, probably cracking the top 10.

S: I think when Henan went down at the end of 2012 they weren’t much worse than the rest of the bottom at that time, plus they cruised back up. So they are unlikely to return to the CL1 I think. Evergrande, hot favourites, the Conca question has already been answered by Diamanti. Beijing or Shandong will be the only team able to get close, neither will win the CSL this year unless Evergrande mess up badly.

B: Well, Beijing takes on Changchun this weekend. I have a lot of thoughts on Beijing, who I think if Manzano can make a consistent side, has a serious shot at challenging Evergrande. Last season too many wins became draws at home and too many draws became losses on the road, and a lot of that happened against teams at the bottom of the table. That has to be changed this year because Evergrande is great at not dropping points. As for Changchun, they lost their during the transfer window and I just can’t see how they’ll stay up.

S: I think Guoan might edge Shandong for runners-up spot. Consistency is a big advantage in the CSL since most clubs pay scant regard to it, but Guoan have and have also spent wisely, Song Boxuan is good enough to start at just about any CSL club but he’s extremely inconsistent. Beijing might offer him a more stable footballing environment which may help you get the best out of him. Zhang Xizhe is of course still at Gongti which speaks for itself. Your new manager, it’s a lottery as always. Putting my blue glasses on, I’d love to see Shandong pip Evergrande to the title, but that isn’t going to happen. Nor is any ultimately successful challenge from Guoan I’m afraid, or anywhere else for that matter. Lippi signing on for three years is great news for Evergrande, very bad news for everyone else.

B: I do think Guoan should finish second this year. As I’ve been saying, now is the time when one can be optimistic and there are plenty of things for Guoan fans to be excited about. You mentioned two of them, but Pablo Batalla comes with high praise, word is he’s a Conca-like game changer. Guoan always breaks my heart anyways, so why bother being pessimistic, if anyone has a chance at challenging Evergrande, its Guoan.

S: Yeah, Batalla I am not familiar with, but if he’s as good quality as you are saying, I’m happy to see better standard of player in the CSL. So moving on, Hangzhou are playing Dalian Aerbin. Hangzhou seem ike another of those middling teams who are hard to predict. Aerbin on the other hand, I know they had some financial problems during the close season but they have made some interesting purchases and I think they may do better than most expect this year.

B: I don’t think Hangzhou is very hard to predict, they’ll be bottom of the table, fighting with Changchun to avoid being relegated. Regarding Aerbin, what does do better mean? I imagine they’ll finish somewhere between 5 and 8 or so.

S: Do better means they may quality for the ACL if they gel correctly. Holding onto Yu Dabao was a big bonus, perhaps his mother is his agent. They also signed Backman, a Swedish defender who is on the verges of the international team and still I think only 25 or so, plus Meneghel from Qingdao who is a proven scorer in the CSL and looked very dangerous anytime I saw him last year. So I have a sneaking feeling they might break into the top 4.

B: I could see them maybe getting into that fourth position just because, like I said earlier, outside of the top 3 and bottom 3 or 4, it’s hard to predict where everyone else will finish. I agree with pretty much everything you said, but I have a feeling Bruno’s going to be on the bench a lot and their new pickup Benko will be the first pick striker.

S: Quite possibly so on Benko. Next up we’ve got Tianjin and Guangzhou R&F. There seems to be a lot of speculation that Sven won’t see out the season in the blue side of Canton, that’s not going to help R&F nor is the fact they don’t appear to have adequately replaced Yakubu.

B: Right, R&F did pretty good with their domestic moves, but their foreign ones show a sense of urgency. They are in the third level of teams that are just going to be there. Tianjin have Arie Haan back once again, I don’t rate them but I don’t think they should be able to avoid the relegation fight.

S: Tianjin I can’t see being near relegation, they’ve got lower mid table written all over them. Arie Haan’s return is a curious one, I remember a few years back he got into hot water for waving a 100rmb note at the referee from the sidelines. Frankly I think we need more people like that in the game in China, for a little light relief if nothing else.

B: Haha, I think you’re purposely avoiding a conversation about the derby match.
S: Hahah…. well, you’d be right. Derby matches are based on local identity and history, something that the owners of both teams participating in Sunday’s match seem to have little grasp of.

B: Outside of those issues, I think the Greenland ownership may get an unhappy wake up call on Sunday, both from the fans and the result.

S: I honestly have no idea how the game will go. Focusing on the pitch though, which is somewhere I wish I could focus on more often when it comes to Shenhua, the ins and outs this close season are not as bad as they appear. The only net loss is Wang Dalei, who is literally irreplaceable in every sense one can imagine. Paulo and the Korean Cho are on paper a much better defensive pairing than a 40-year-old and a guy who played one game for Evergrande. Shenhua even have a proper right back now – will the Hongkou game of positional musical chairs be sidelined for a while? The new striker Ruiz looks poor, a 1 in 6 scoring ratio, but he’s surely better than donkey Daddy. Plus Firas, and crucially Moreno are back. Shenhua won’t be relegated this year but that’s all I can say. As for Sunday’s game, Shenxin always flatter to deceive, hopefully they’ll get their asses handed to them on a plate.

B: I don’t know, while I agree Shenhua will most definitely avoid relegation, they are going to be very mediocre. Shenxin is set to impress this year, despite losing Jiang Zhipeng. I picked them to be my overachievers, which for them means finishing in the top half of the table once again and being the highest finishing among the Shanghai trio.

S: If I had to predict Shenhua, I’d say they would finish midtable and have a roughly similar year to last year. As for Shenxin, I think they are a waste of a CSL space, although this season they are back in Jinshan for reasons out with their control, if they have any sense they will make a commitment to base themselves their permanently. They picked up Jiang Jiajun from Sainty, he played for Shenhua a couple of years ago and is an above average CSL player. As for the rest of the squad, looks unimpressive. I think its very difficult to predict which Shanghai team will finish highest, they all look fairly mediocre this season. A fools game, is predictions!

B: Its sort of depressing really, but what it comes down to is whose foreigners are the strongest, on that I think Shenxin pip their local rivals.

S: OK moving on from the Shanghai “derby” to the most sensible team in town, Shanghai East Asia. They’re away to Liaoning, a team you have a soft spot for. Thoughts?

B: I think Liaoning should be safe this year, but just barely, somewhere around 10 or 12 is realistic. East Asia will be right down at the bottom end of the table with them. They were able to keep Wu Lei in the offseason, but lost pretty much everyone else and I see them really struggling.

S: Big question marks over both Liaoning and East Asia. But I believe neither will be relegated at the end of the year. East Asia however really need to hope that their big Swedish signing Hysen settles in and bangs in the goals, Wu Lei can’t do it all by himself. Liaoning don’t look that clever either, they parted ways a long serving and successful (relatively in both senses) manager in Ma Lin and they have moved and will be playing in Panjin, another city in the province which bears their name. Not sure either of those developments are positive.

B: The move to Panjin is definitely a positive for the club, there’s a considerable amount of across-the-board investment that could lead to a lot of positives. Losing Ma is painful, but Gao Sheng was an assistant under Ma and even played together with Ma at Liaoning, so I think there is a degree of stability there.

S: Whats behind their move and why do you think its positive?

B: Money. The local government in Panjin offered a considerable amount including building new training facilities and youth team dormitories. Plus they could offer a beautiful new stadium (not that Tiexi was that old), so they decided to make the switch.

S: I know they have a history of buzzing around the province, but Liaoning are leaving behind an average crowd of around 20,000 for the past three years in Shenyang. That’s a lot of disappointed fans who face a bit of a trip if they want to continue watching their side.

B: A large portion of Liaoning fans come from areas outside of Shenyang. For those who regularly make the trip from Anshan or Jinzhou, Panjin is actually more convenient. It will be interesting to see how much (if at all) the new location hurts attendance.

S: It will be interesting for sure. I must say I think in a place the size of China, having a team representing a province is a good thing.

B: Yes, its interesting how many clubs fail to truly represent their province, despite carrying the name.

S: It’s inevitable that most fans of a club are going to be from the city it’s based in. So we looked at this weeks games, none are blockbusters really the CSL is breaking us in gently for 2014. What are your hopes for the season in general?

B: The league has a lot of momentum right now, I just hope we see that continue with a competitive 2014 and as few off-the-field stories as possible. Good runs for Chinese clubs in the ACL would be ideal as well.

S: I think Chinese football should see 2014 as a new chapter. We had Evergrande win the ACL last season and do something truly positive for Chinese football, and the national side has a year to prepare for the Asian Cup, albeit after qualifying in the most shambolic manner one could possibly imagine. This year should be seen as a one to use the increasing strength of the CSL to improve the national team on all levels in a progressive way.

B: Indeed! I think we can both agree the most important thing is that the league needs to go forward, the general perception is becoming positive, this is no time for a step backward.

S: Yeah well the pub has been rather serious this week, so I’d just like to say the “ass backwards” headline was very amusing, even if it was caused by something ridiculous.

B: Lets hope we don’t need headlines like that in the future.

S: I think we can all drink to that. Cheers!

B: Cheers.

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade…

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